On Valentine’s evening Sale Sharks were haunted by an old flame, as Charlie Hodgson booted his side victory scoring all of Saracens points in a 10-15 victory.
In a well-fought game between two miserly and well-drilled defence’s it was the boot of the Premiership’s record points scorer that was the difference as Saracens bounced back from a defeat to London Irish last weekend with a win.
The game burst into life after a matter of seconds as Sharks winger Tom Brady scorched down the right hand side to pin the retreating Saracens defence on the back foot.
The visitors scrambled to good effect to win a penalty and after Charlie Hodgson found a good touch with the kick, hooker Jamie George nearly released Scotland centre Duncan Taylor with a neat little grubber.
Taylor was upended by Mark Cueto just as he hacked on, and after the Sharks conceded their third penalty of the evening in front of their own posts, Charlie Hodgson sent over the penalty to give Saracens a three to nothing lead after five minutes.
Sale didn’t have to wait too lo0ng to achieve parity in the scoreboard, as Danny Cipriani sent over a well stuck penalty on the 15 minute mark.
After Cipriani leveled up the scores Saracens really should have scored their first of the evening as a well worked backs move released Duncan Taylor who could have scored himself or released right winger Chris Ashton, instead Taylor coughed up possession with the line at his mercy.
Saracens had half chances through Taylor again and Strettle, after the winger chased a well weighted Hodgson grubber that would ultimately elude him.
In the closing minutes off the first stanza both sides jockeyed for position with some probing kicks as the two team battled for field position before Sale crossed for the games first try. After a galloping break from Wasps bound No.8 James Gaskell, Saracens conceded a penalty – Sale kicked for touch and set up the catch and drive and hooker Marc Jones burrowed over to score. Cipriani converted.
Hodgson dragged a penalty wide just before the half-time whistle as the hosts went into the welcoe warmth of the AJ Bell Stadium dressing rooms 10-3 up.
Suitably defrosted and with the Manchester gale (not her off Corrie) behind their backs, Saracens immediately went close to scoring as Duncan Taylor was held up over the line after Hodgson had released him down the left hand wing, only to be tackled by Sharks wing Tom Brady.
Minutes later Hodgson added another penalty to reduce the hosts lead to four points as Saracens sent on the cavalry, with Brits, Johnston and De Kock replacing George, Stevens and Wigglesworth respectively.
Sale were again penalised for not releasing in the tackle as replacement Brits was beginning to make inroads into the Sharks defence. Hodgson kicked a difficult attempt to make the scores 10-9 to the hosts.
The game at this point was a tight and tense affair, and after both sides ended their five minute kick-a-thon Saracens were awarded a penalty when James Gaskell mistimed a tackle on Neil de Kock. Hodgson again kicked the penalty goal as Joel Tomkins and Ernst Joubert replaced Duncan Taylor and Jackson Wray who both had influential games.
Sale rallied, and against the run of play, the impressive Sharks No.8 Gaskell looked to atone for his ill-discipline as he broke through the Saracens defence to race away down field, only to be met by Charlie Hodgson and Brad Barritt, with the England centre producing another crunching tackle to force the Sale back rower to knock-on.
With a reshuffled Saracens pack now forcing the Sharks eight into conceding penalties at the set-piece at both the scrum and the lineout Saracens looked to press for the win.
Chris Wyles replaced David Strettle on the left wing as the Sharks made a rare foray into the Saracens territory from a penalty. The Sharks went through the phases only to be frustrated as Dwayne Peel knocked on at the base of the ruck as Saracens marched down field via Chris Ahston’s boot.
Again Saracens couldn’t capitalise as a Sharks defence drilled by ex-Bradford Bulls and Warrington Rugby League player Mike Forshaw continued to frustrate the away side.
Saracens were under pressure at this point, and after a Rob Miller kick found touch in Saracens 22 the Sharks were sniffing blood.
From the resulting lineout Saracens were adjudged to have gone off their feet at the ruck, but replacement outside half Nick McLeod missed what was a difficult kick to give the Sharks the lead.
Richard Barrington and Mouritz Botha entered the fray, as Saracens looked to close out the game with a series of scrums in the Sale half. With the Sharks set-piece now under pressure, Saracens were awarded a penalty with just 90 seconds left to play.
Charlie Hodgson lined up the kick as the rain swirled down from the M60 flyover and the ex-Sharks playmaker made no mistake to seal the win.